Technological Break-throughs and Social Conditions

Can you imagine that only a few people were able to read and write before the invention of the printing press? Before the advent of the printing press, people had to hand-write every text they wanted to keep or give to someone else. Writing and copying by hand was extremely time consuming. In addition, the number of books was limited, so it was difficult for people to learn new knowledge. The invention of movable type made written communication faster and cheaper, and thus helped to transmit knowledge. However, the technological-breakthrough needs right social conditions to have revolutionary impact. We can find the examples in both western and eastern countries.

In Europe, Martin Luther was able to transmit religious revolutionary ideas through all of Europe with mass-produced pamphlets called the Ninety Five Theses. Luther’s friends translated the Ninety Five Theses from Latin to German. At that time, only a few people were able to read Latin, but many ordinary people were able to read German. The Roman Catholic Church did not also suppress Luther’s printing. Luther was not only assisted by technology, but also by the literacy of the German people, and the social freedom to print.

Korea had movable metal type before the invention of movable type by Johannes Gutenberg. The Buddhist doctrine book “Jikji” is the oldest metal print book published in 1377. Even though Korea’s metal movable type was invented 70 years earlier than Gutenberg’s movable type, there was no kind of “information revolution.” In Korea, the use movable type was restricted because the Yi dynasty (imperial powers) feared that if low-ranking people learned to read and write and became more knowledgeable, it would be hard to control them! As a result, the transmission of knowledge through printing was only shared by royal people. Korea invented metal movable type earlier, but printing was suppressed by social conditions.

Both Germany and Korea had same technological break-through: the invention of movable metal type. These two examples show that a technological break-through alone cannot provide a revolutionary impact. The right social conditions are necessary for the impact of the technological break-through. Who knows? Today, there could be an innovative technological break-through that might be undermined by our social conditions.

Modern day metal movable type. Maryland Institute College of Art. Photograph by  KiHyuck Lee

Modern day metal movable type. Maryland Institute College of Art. Photograph by Ki Hyuck Lee






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